Note: this article was originally published in March 2017, and has been updated for the 2018 Apple-watching spring season.
It's the second week of March. By this time of the year, especially if Apple has been unusually quiet, you start to see a level of restlessness among tech pundits and bloggers. There should be news. There should be stuff to write about.
In the absence of any actual news coming from the Spaceship Cupertino, rumors tend to pop up, which helps keep the self-perpetuating echo chamber operating at full blast.
To be honest, though, this isn't just a matter of click-hungry press running on fumes. Last year at this time, we were very concerned about whether Apple was going to update the Mac at all in 2017. That question has been answered (somewhat) with updated iMacs and the surprisingly robust iMac Pro. While the jury is still out on the promised Mac Pro and the missing-in-action Mac mini refits, most Mac users were reasonably satisfied with the 2017 update cycle.
Even so, there are still rumors and devices to look forward to. Last year was only the second time in more than a decade that Apple only held one major announcement event. To help provide some insight, I've decided to subject Apple's announcement history to some rigorous analysis.
To conduct this analysis, I updated my spreadsheet based on event data posted by AAPL Investors. This provided a data set on 27 Apple events going back a full decade to the beginning of 2007.
These events became individual observations in the analysis. I defined variables corresponding to the invite date of the event, the event date itself, the season in which the event took place, and the product categories the event was promoting.
It should be noted that I'm not including WWDC events in this analysis, because we're looking for whether or not new hardware will be announced. Summer WWDC events are usually used to preview iOS and MacOS changes so that developers can get started updating their apps. That said, the big announcement of the iMac Pro took place at WWDC, so past is not necessarily always prologue.
How you view the seasons depends, generally, on which hemisphere you live in. Since I'm in the northern hemisphere, we'll use northern hemisphere seasons. Even though seasons don't really fall on month boundaries, for our purposes, here is how I'm defining each season:
- Winter: December, January, February
- Spring: March, April, May
- Summer: June, July, August
- Fall: September, October, November
As the following chart shows, Apple has held twice as many events in the fall as in the spring, with only a very small number in either the winter or the summer. In fact, the fall percentage inched up over the past year to 63 percent from 61 percent. The spring event share dropped a notch to 26 percent from 27 percent. The odds of a spring event this year are correspondingly lower.
Events per year
On average, Apple holds 2.45 events per year. That number has been declining in recent years, down slightly from the 2.6 events per year average we reported last year. Of more note, Apple only held one major announcement event last year, which is only the second time in a decade it limited its major product announcements to one big shindig.
Apple has been putting on more of a show during its summer World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), turning that event into more of a PR stunt than a developer conference. As such, it's possible that we'll start seeing more of a trend where Apple skips the spring event entirely in favor of a more hyped-up WWDC.
Probability of a spring event
Given that there are far fewer fall events than spring events, a question can be asked: Is there any way to predict, based on the number of events in a preceding year, whether there will be a spring event? In other words, is there a correlation between the number of events in a given year, and whether or not there is a spring announcement the following year?
To get a handle on this, I ran a linear regression analysis on a table containing the number of events in a given year and whether or not a spring event was held the following year. The following table summarizes the results:
Because the slope value on the coefficient for the number events is negative, this shows us that the likelihood of a spring event decreases as the number of events increase. Because that value is -0.16, the regression is really saying that the likelihood of a spring event goes down only about 16 percent as the number of events go up. But that's based only on the data from the last 10 years.
The real question is whether there's a valid, statistical conclusion in there. To find out, we use a tool called a p-value. In our case, the p-value is 0.387-yada-yada. While significance in p-values do not necessarily have to be based on the 5-percent rule, the standard is to reject the null hypothesis when p<0.05. For our purposes, the null hypothesis means that these are not the stat droids you're looking for.
Since the p-value of 0.387 is substantially higher than 0.05, it is not possible to reject the null hypothesis. What all of that math means is that there's no way, statistically, to relate the number of events of a previous year to whether or not we're going to have a spring event this year.
Has this season passed us by?
To answer this, let's first look at the date Apple sent out invites, rather than the date of the announcement itself. On average, Apple sends out announcements for events 8.74 days before the event itself. In our case, then, it's unlikely we'll have an event before March 21 or so, but there is still an open window for a March announcement event.
Here's when Apple typically holds events. As the following chart shows, over the last decade, Apple has only held announcement events during these six months of the year: January, March, April, August, September, and October. In the spring, the only months where we can expect new products to be announced by Apple are March and April, with a substantially higher probability that there will be a March announcement than an April announcement (April's percentage actually dropped a point since last year).
The Apple spring announcement season, such as it is, is still in play, if only for a few more weeks.
What will be announced?
Let's go with the assumption that there will be a spring event, since we're very much still within the window of probability. Will there be new Macs?
Separating out the promise of a new Mac Pro and the need to upgrade the aging Mac mini, of the last eight events where Apple has announced new Macs, only one occurred in the spring.
Given that the all Apple's consumer machines (the notebooks and iMac) have been updated relatively recently, and the interest on the part of the typical WWDC audience in performance and flexibility, we can generally expect that if there is a 2018 Mac announcement, it will be at WWDC, not in a spring event. There are some rumors of a price-reduced MacBook Air, but that doesn't warrant a full event. So don't expect new Macs now.
Far more likely are iPad announcements. Of the last eight iPad announcements, half of them were introduced in the spring timeframe (I'm including one January announcement in this pack). In other words, while it's unlikely we'll see new Macs this spring, there's a good 50-50 chance we'll see updated iPads.
We've also heard some rumors of updated Ear Pods. If there's a measurable feature or capability upgrade in this surprisingly beloved devices, they might warrant coverage in a spring event. In addition, since there were six Apple Watch announcements in the last eight Apple events, there's a good chance the Apple Watch will have some mention, if only to announce another incredibly overpriced band for people who value style over substance (you know who you are).
So, should we have new Apple products by now?
Of the five March events that Apple has held in the last decade, all but 2016's event occurred before March 13. So, if we were going to have an event in March, it's statistically likely it would have occurred by now.
That means we're probably waiting on an April event. Unfortunately, for those hoping for new products, Apple has only held two April events in the last decade. The last one was eight years ago.
Given that any big Mac Pro announcement will likely be at WWDC, the big draw is dependent on whether Apple wants to push its recent iPad success in a bid to keep the category moving. The math says the window is still open, but increasingly unlikely.
That said, predicting anything from a dataset this small is dicey at best. There's just not enough data to form a real pattern. Apple is going to do what Apple is going to do, regardless of any previous years' pattern of activity. And, finally, as we've come to know all too well over the last few years, time-tested prediction methodologies break down when the future somehow decides not to mirror the past.
So, take this column for what it is: A fun exercise in the ongoing punditry of predicting what Apple is going to do based on experience, insight, rumors, lies, damned lies, statistics, and absolutely no real clue.
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